Sunday, February 3, 2008


After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus." -- Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.” -- Philip K. Dick

In Stranger in a Strange Land Jubal Harshaw, as a demonstration, asks one of his secretaries the color of a neighbor’s house. She answers “It’s white on this side.” The idea was that she was a “Fair Witness,” a person with special training who didn’t make assumptions about her observations, so her testimony was given special credence in a court of law.

Sometime when I was in grade school, living on Ironwood Drive in Donelson, Tennessee, I was witness to an unusual atmospheric phenomenon. There was a very low cloud overhead; I think it may have been a contrail cloud from the relatively nearby airport, because the cloud was long and narrow. It was otherwise clear, and near sunset.

We all know how vivid the sunset can be in the last few minutes of light. This cloud picked up the neon pink of the last rays of sun, but it was close. The whole neighborhood lit up with that light. My hair became red; my skin looked dark and sunburned. Our house glowed electric pink.

Our house was actually encased in white asbestos shingles. But for a few moments it was pink—at least on the side that I could see. Truth to tell, though, for me to say that it would have also looked pink on the sides I couldn’t see would have involved fewer assumptions than Heinlein’s “Fair Witness,” was making.

Is this a cheap shot at Heinlein’s expense? I hope not. I’ve seen climate researchers Spenser and Christy refer to their satellite microwave measurements as “direct observations” of atmospheric temperatures, when they most assuredly are not, given that there have been over half a dozen “corrections” to their estimates since they were first published. They are hardly alone is this sort of scientific conceit; I’ve heard such claims many times over the years, as well as researchers referring to various chemical rate parameters (often photolysis rates) as being derived from “first principles,” another nigh onto meaningless phrase used to cloak a welter of assumptions and models of reality.

“What is reality?” appears in a Firesign Theater record as part of a series of audience heckles, and that’s what it often feels like. What we have to work with is subjective experience, which is then denigrated to “mere” subjective experience. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Pirsig has a nice long exposition on why words like “just,” “merely,” and “only” are out of place in any descriptions of objective reality, including science. They are indicators of a sneaky, subjective value judgment that someone is trying to slip into the mix. Chemistry isn’t merely very complicated physics. Chemistry is very complicated physics. The second sentence reads differently, doesn’t it?

We have a number of tried-and-true methods of “factualizing” subjective experience and most of them have to do with repeated observations, especially different kinds of observations. We believe in the “reality” of a rose because we can see it, touch it, smell it, taste it, and even hear it if it is moving through the air. Things that register on all the senses are commonly thought to be “more real” than something that can only be seen, such as a rainbow.

Objects also are given greater claim to objective reality if they persist, since persistence is one of the ways a single observer can make multiple observations. Objects made of matter have greater weight because they have weight, which persists, and can be felt.

Science takes everyday observations of reality and gathers them together into grand theoretical constructs, like Universal Gravitation, the Standard Model, and Evolution by Natural Selection. Scientific theories make sense of the world, allowing us to make predictions, or construct gizmos (in the largest sense) that give us power over the material and immaterial worlds. As Lester del Rey once said, “Mysticism has been around for millennia, science for only centuries. Science is ahead.”

The danger is in forgetting that our ideas about reality are themselves constructs. We believe that there is a reality, but no one has it on a leash, and no one speaks for it. The danger itself factualizes when someone projects their own subjective needs, fears, and desires upon that construct, making it yet another servant to the unconscious mind. We’re all guilty of that to some extent; paradoxically, it’s the ones who claim to most serve “reality” who are most likely to make their own ideas into yet another simulacrum of God. Then just crank up the dial to eleven, ‘cause it’s time for another episode of Monsters from the Id.


Anonymous said...

Some of the confusion, is the house white or pink?, comes from our reflexive tendency to fall into binary thinking. I strongly suspect language is the influential player here. We're not wired with binary connections but we sure loves us some either/or.

Oh boy! Monsters from the Id! Golem Denial seems to be the favorite these days. Busy too.

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